Don Bonsanti and the 14 Jazz Orchestra
Arranger Don Bonsanti is back with The 14 Jazz Orchestra following up the previously issued successful The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be. The big band is contemporary and creative with five reeds, three trumpets, three trombones, and various players in the rhythm section across piano/keys, guitar, bass, and drums. It’s comprised of alumni from the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, touching seven decades with most active in South Florida as jazz and versatile studio musicians and some are also educators. A few of the guests do hail from other parts of country.
Band member, Grammy nominated woodwind master Dr. Ed Calle is the most frequent featured soloist on tenor or soprano, and he’s joined by these special guests: drummer Peter Erskine, bassist Mark Egan, and guitarists Randy Bernsen and Lindsey Blair. Solos come from both guests and band members. They all bear impressive pedigrees, as does Bonsanti who earned his Bachelor and Master’s degrees from the University of Miami. He has performed as a saxophonist and arranger with quite a few bands, most notably Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth Orchestra, Doc Severinsen and Stan Kenton. He has composed and arranged for the Jaco Pastorius Big Band and founded The 14 Jazz Orchestra in 2013. Here he is the producer, arranger, and composer of the title track and the closer, “A Day Tripper’s Blues Buffet.” As you may have gleaned from Bonsanti’s background, his is a contemporary bent as Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, and Stanley Clarke compositions are among those featured.
It took Bonsanti over a year to choose the tunes for this project. He claims to have listened to each song on the album by different artists at least 100 times before feeling that he had enough color, passion, and energy to engage the listener, and provide the proper setting for the soloists and rhythm section. Because of the pandemic, recording was challenging. So, while he was able to tap many of his usual players, he had to forego a few in favor of those who had home studios. This brought trumpeters Brett Murphey from Wisconsin and Jason Gardner from Arizona, as well as trombonist Dane Teboe from Maine. All three were graduate of UofM jazz programs and had worked with Bonsanti. Also joining were Erskine from Los Angeles (a Pastorious connection) and woodwind players Ed Maina from Tennessee and Tom Tinko from New Jersey. Pianist Mike Levine, a frequent soloist did the heavy lifting as recording engineer. Other musicians contributed from various locations in Florida: guitarists Blair and Bernsen, drummers Lee Levin, Jack Ciano, and Mike Harvey; woodwind players Calle, Peter Brewer and Neal Bonsanti (Don’s brother). Also, bassists Nick Orta, Tim Smith, Jamie Ousley, and Matt Bonelli, pianist Kemuel Roig, and percussionist Richard Bravo were Floridian contributors.
They kick off with the title track featuring solos from Calle (tenor), Gardner, and Maina (alto). The tune was inspired by a TV commercial that used the cartoon character, Rocky and Bullwinkle. It’s his use of piccolo and tuba, and the Bird and Monk motifs that make it especially interesting. While originally intending to do a Beatles tune and blues number, he mashed up the two in the closer which again features Calle on fiery tenor and guitarist Blair for his blistering blues-rock.
As we’ve come to expect from Bonsanti, there are two Chick Corea tunes in the repertoire – “Got a Match?” and “Duende.” Others from that same generation of iconic jazz masters include Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” Herbie Hancock’s “Driftin’,” and Stanley Clarke’s “Dayride.” Corea’s “Got a Match” features the most soloists, four – Calle (tenor), Maina (piccolo), Orta (electric bass), and Levin (drums). “Duende” also has Calle on tenor and, rather unusually and oboe solo from Neal Bonsanti. Shorter’s is perhaps the most radically transformed, slowed to a 6/4 feel with a variety of woodwind colors as Bernsen and Levine solo. Conversely, Hancock’s becomes a hard swinging affair with Maina, Gardner, and Levine stepping out. Clarke’s is faithfully rendered in fusion style with Blair’s guitar, Levine’s keyboard and Calle’s tenor providing the thrusts. The exciting shout chorus near the end puts the exclamation point of the piece.
Bonsanti and The 14 Jazz Orchestra bring an energized collection of straight-ahead, pop, and fusion composition form his large ensemble which, by the arranger’s design, sounds like a large ensemble but not quite a big band. Several of these players are bandleaders as well and consistent with past efforts, the musicianship remains stellar.
- Jim Hynes